Susanna Siegel (left) and Deborah Douglas (center) discuss how journalists can re-think objectivity in a seminar with Nieman Fellows

Susanna Siegel (left) and Deborah Douglas (center) discuss how journalists can re-think objectivity in a seminar with Nieman Fellows

Objectivity, once a prized tenet of journalism, has come under scrutiny in recent years. What does it mean to be objective? Should journalists re-define it? And is objectivity an ideal that journalists should still aspire to? 

Susanna Siegel and Deborah Douglas answered these questions and more in a conversation with Nieman Fellows in October. Siegel is the Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, where she has taught since 1999. She is author of two books and many articles about perception and the relationships between perception and culture, memory, and reasonable person standards in the law. This semester she is teaching an undergraduate course on the philosophy of journalism, “Truth, Lies, and the Press.” 

Douglas is co-editor-in-chief of The Emancipator. She previously served as the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor at DePauw University, senior leader with The Op Ed Project, which amplifyies underrepresented expert voices, and founding managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Douglas is also the author of “U.S. Civil Rights Trail: A Traveler’s Guide to the People, Places, and Events That Made the Movement,” the first-ever travel guide to follow the official civil rights trail in the South. 

Edited excerpts: 

On objectivity

Susanna Siegel: Much anti-racist reporting is exemplary as accountability, explanatory, and investigative journalism. Yet often this kind of journalism is criticized by critics who rely on the vocabulary of “objectivity”. The critics say the journalists are “biased” and cannot be “objective”. Increasingly, such attacks reach beyond the professional circles, into broader publics, as we have seen with the barrage of charges against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project.

What vocabulary can we use to characterize such vital journalism from attacks like these?

The popular anti-objectivity option says: “If being objective is pretending not to care about or advocate for democracy, or if being objective means I have leave behind what I know from my experiences when I’m reporting … If it means these things, well then I don’t want to be objective.” 

In this option, one is agreeing to some extent with the attackers by saying, “You’re right about one thing: my coverage is not objective, and that’s fine with me.” 

Then there’s the pro-objectivity option, which says to the critics: “No, you’re wrong. Here are all the ways that my reporting is objective.”

Here’s a consideration favoring the pro-objectivity option. Most words have valences. Valences are positive or negative, and they’re not sensitive to what an individual happens to associate with the word. [You might love spiders and dislike babies,] but that does not stop the word “spider” from having a negative valence and “babies” from having positive one. Purely as a matter of political rhetoric, if you can find your opponent as opposing a thing that has positive valence — such as doing something that’s bad for the babies — then you can score a rhetorical point. 

Inside the world of journalism, “objectivity” is so hotly contested that it may have no steady valence. [In broader public], the word “objectivity” has a positive valence. That’s why it can be used improperly, for [repressive] gatekeeping. When accusing reporting or a journalist as lacking objectivity, the criticism is that it’s lacking a good, positive thing. 

“Debates” [over objectivity] are an illusion. They’re not really debates. The journalism and the journalists under attack are not falling short of objectivity at all. Instead the critics are mis-using this vocabulary. They’re misusing it, they’re misapplying it, because they’re weaponizing it. One way to defend against that move is not to let them have the word. That’s the pro-objectivity option. 

Recently Xi Jinping described contemporary China as a special, superior, non-electoral form of democracy –  despite its repressive media environment, the fact that there’s no clear principle of succession, and no real channels of accountability. If you think Xi is misusing the term “democracy”, then you might not want to say “Well if that’s democracy, then I’m anti-democracy”. Yet that’s what the anti-objectivity option does. It lets the opponent define “objectivity”, and then rejects the result. 

Deborah Douglas: I really appreciate all the different definitions that Susanna brought up. Right now, the word objectivity to me is a weapon, and I say, “Throw it out.” I want to have a whole new word.

I appreciate the effort to rebrand it and repackage it. I don’t want to reclaim it. You can have it back. White males, they can have their word. 

I like the definition of excellence in journalism that María Len-Ríos at Emory came up with. It’s a lot of different factors, but it includes context, proportionality, voices, a lot of different things. We need a whole new word.

[We need] a language that has been developed, defined, and codified by people who look like us, and not like the original people who came up with this idea of what credible storytelling, authenticity, and bearing witness really look like.

On advocacy journalism and democracy

Douglas: The one thing that we haven’t talk about now is the fact that journalism is a part of the American project as a democratic exercise. 

There’s a built-in bias … [because of] the fact that we’re the only profession mentioned in the constitution. If we are pursuing this democratic ideal — we haven’t gotten there yet, it’s still just an idea — then, what is it that activates that democratic idea?

I would like to think that an antiracist society is part of that definition. How could that be advocacy when it’s the thing that drives us every day within our daily practice?

We have people in charge of the narrative who are not prepared and don’t have the expertise to really, truly be the gatekeepers of the narratives that bear witness to our lives.

I’d like to get to a place where people start to be a little more introspective and excavate and understand where they have the capability to make a decision and where they need stand back and center other people, voices, and experiences. We could have this collective practice of bearing witness and accountability together.

Siegel: I don’t like the word “advocacy”. When you call it advocacy it sounds sectional, it sounds partisan. I think the argument for [inclusive] journalism comes [not from advocacy], but directly from a fundamental principle of democracy, which is: political equality. 

If everybody is going to have a say [in governance], then everybody needs an equal opportunity to be heard. That means we need information channels connecting journalists to all the parts of the communities that they’re reporting on. Advocacy of specific interests need not play any role in this argument at all.

Douglas: To me, advocacy is a sterile word. It does not confront the idea that we’re really fighting for our lives. It’s a life-or-death situation. We’re in the highest stakes that we’re fighting for on a regular, everyday basis. To say that what I do, or what other outlets do is advocacy, is really you asking me to diminish my humanity.

I think we need more humanity in our storytelling, not less humanity in our storytelling. It takes you to some weird, default experience. You have to ask yourself, “Who’s experience is that? Who’s the default?” That doesn’t serve for majority of us.

On how to change newsroom power dynamics

Douglas: I think that’s hard, because when you’re disagreeing with your producer or with your editor on their thought process, there’s a power differential there. How do we keep amplifying these ideas and how to break through?

It has to do with critical mass like having people in a room like this. Go back into the newsroom. Evangelize for evolving the way we think about things, but also, finding other people in newsrooms, affinity groups, and then our community to raise the question, to ask the question, to press forward as a group not as an individual.

When you disaggregate the mass into one person, then you’re a target. If you’re vulnerable because there’s this power differential, then you never win. You run the risk of being seen as problematic. Being seen as part of a community, a conversation — there’s more power in numbers.

We do have power. We just have to stop long enough to figure out where our power lies, where our community power is.

I want the people who were in charge to be called to account but in a loving way, not in an angry kind of way. Like, “We’re trying to do something different here. Come on over here, and let’s have a conversation. Let’s have a reparatory conversation about how you helped create this, and, by virtue of following your leadership, I helped create that problem, too. I’m going to tell you what I’m going to do about it to repair, but let’s talk about what you did.”

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